How to make stress work for you

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Do you know how to make stress work for you? Or do you simply dread it? Here is some advice specifically for writers….

Working as a senior editor in a metropolitan daily newspaper (1984-1990) was one of the happiest times of my life. I loved the stress!

I always savoured the feeling I had a little more to do than I could comfortably handle. I enjoyed taking a story that was badly written and turning it into a 550-word piece of tightly written persuasiveness. I relished racing to rewrite a headline that hadn’t quite done the trick. I adored running out to the “compositing room” to oversee the design of a page. I liked the way my heart raced and my hands became slightly sweaty. The feeling of being pushed and stretched made me feel alive and vibrant — I felt strong, capable and my brain was humming. 

Some people feel this way when physically challenged. They ski. They bungee jump. They use ice axes. Not me. I’m a physical wimp! But give me a mental challenge and I’m your person. If I were a doctor or nurse, I’d have chosen to work in an ER. If I were good with money, I’d have been a floor trader. If I worked in the travel industry, I’d have been an air traffic controller.

But even if stress isn’t something you enjoy, understand that it’s in your interest to become better at handling it. I know, I know. You probably think that stress is bad for you. But, in fact, what’s more important is your attitude towards it. In a 2012 American study about stressresearchers found that people were more likely to die prematurely only if they also believed that stress was bad for their health. In contrast, those who experienced high stress but didn’t view it as harmful were the least likely to die prematurely.

Here are nine steps you can take to improve your attitude towards stress:

  1. Acknowledge your stress: Some of us think that if we ignore something it might just go away. Even if you’re a big fan of magical realism, you should realize there’s no way stress will ever fade like a spectre. Instead, concentrate on labelling it. Here’s why this is a useful idea:  The act of labelling something — consciously and deliberately — moves neural activity to a different part of your brain. Before labelling, it will reside in the amygdala — the oldest part of our brain and the centre of emotion and fear. Once you label it, however, you move the thought to your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for executive control and planning. Once it’s in that location, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it.
  2. Put a positive spin on your natural reactions: When we face stress, our autonomic nervous systems cause a host of predictable reactions in our body. Our hearts beat faster. We start to sweat. We find it hard to breathe. We may feel dizzy or light-headed. All of these symptoms are likely to cause alarm. Alternatively, however, we can view these symptoms as welcome signs that something interesting and exciting is about to happen. Why? Because we have exactly the same physical reactions when we’re about to do something fun and novel. Reframe your body’s natural reaction to stress as a sign that something positive is about to occur. (This method is especially useful for people who fear public speaking. The shaking hands and sweaty palms are not a sign of disaster. They’re a sign you’re excited. Tell yourself that!)
  3. Monitor your breathing: I know that many writers experience what I call writing apnea. This is because, when we write, some of us forget to breathe! As a result, our nervous systems go into panic mode and other physical symptoms start to appear. I’ve found that the forgetting-to-breathe pattern is habitual for some and not an issue for others. Monitor yourself to see where you fall on the continuum. If you’re a forgetter (like me!) use some breathing exercises  to calm your brain.
  4. Get enough sleep: About a third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep each night and yet, puzzlingly, writing coaches often encourage their clients to get up earlier so as to squeeze in more writing time. While I’m a huge fan of writing in the morning, I never encourage people to shortchange their sleep. We need enough sleep in order to write, to feel calm in the face of stress, and, most particularly, in order to be creative.
  5. Stop multi-tasking: At last, our society is beginning to understand that multi-tasking is not a sign of superior intellect or accomplishment. Instead, it’s just a way to increase our stress levels. It also leads us to make more mistakes and causes us to take longer to do everything. In particular, be aware of the small ways in which you multi-task. For example, do you stay connected to your email all day? Stop it! Instead, check your email only every few hours. Your stress levels will go way down when you do that. 
  6. Learn to say no: Some people are stressed simply because they take on too much work. If your workload has gone from exciting and invigorating to crushing and debilitating, try saying ‘no’ more frequently. As a good first step, you could at least resolve never to say ‘yes’ immediately. Instead, when you’re asked to do something say, “Sounds interesting! Can I get back to you tomorrow? I really want to make sure I have the time to devote to this project.” This response is a ‘maybe’ rather than a ‘no,’ but at least it doesn’t preclude a ‘no’ down the road.
  7. Watch your self-talk: We all talk to ourselves all the time. But are you talking trash? If you’re anything like most people, your comments are likely overwhelmingly negative. This cycle of negative self-chatter — I’ll never be able to finish this project; there just isn’t enough time —  is only going to increase your stress and make it even harder for you to finish your work. 
  8. Keep your well full: In order to write, we all need enough relaxation. Are you reading enough novels? Seeing enough streaming and movies? Listening to music? Getting enough exercise? Many of these tasks sound like ‘entertainment’ or fun, but they are vitally important for writers. I just returned from a week of holidays and it gave me a huge injection of energy. Visualize the stuff you do for yourself as a well, being filled with water. When water levels start to dip, your stress is going to increase and your writing will suffer.
  9. Rely on friends: In the age of the pandemic, most of us are restricted to seeing only immediate family. But don’t isolate yourself. Meet your friends in whatever ways you can — phone, physically distanced meetings in the outdoors, Zoom, email, Facebook, whatever. The comfort of friends can assuage many of the difficulties created by stress.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but it’s not a part you should ignore. Instead, turn it into a positive force that can help make your writing life more vital and rewarding.

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my three-month accountability program called Get It Done. If you already know you want to apply, go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to use your memory for memoir. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you deal with stress? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Aug. 31/20 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!